Acts of Faith: Belief as Skilled Work in International Christian Humanitarian Organizations

Monday, 16 July 2018: 18:00
Oral Presentation
Amy KALER, University of Alberta, Canada
John R PARKINS, University of Alberta, Canada
Philip Caputo’s acclaimed 2005 novel Acts of Faith depicted the travails of evangelical Christian organizations doing humanitarian relief work in what is now South Sudan. While Caputo, like most other observers, equates the “acts of faith” with the observable consequences of faith-motivated action, in this paper we argue that prior to and contemporary with those readily visible acts are more subtle acts, the cognitive and affective practices through which faith-motivated actors engage in “world-making and world-sustaining” activities of aligning personal experience in South Sudan and elsewhere with Christian belief in transcendent realities (Lynch 2013). We take our cue from Luhrmann’s (2013) study of personal prayer as a skilled activity learned through social interaction and critical reflection. Our data come from interviews in 2015 with 30 self-identified evangelical Christian humanitarians from north America and Europe who are or have recently been working for emergency relief and development work in South Sudan. South Sudan serves as a limit case for faith-based humanitarianism because of the extreme volatility of the social and political situation. It also has an extensive history of international Christian involvement. These interviews are supplemented by more recent interviews at the Canadian headquarters of faith-based Christian relief organizations and by analysis of the narrative cultural products of these organizations including blogs and YouTube videos. We attend to the stories people tell about themselves as faith-motivated subjects, with particular attention to the skilled work involved in personal and collective “acts of faith”.